School holiday activities: Four good old fashioned frugal play ideas

Good old fashioned frugal play ideas. Little eco footprints

We're nearing the end of the school holidays and I'm looking forward to a few quiet days at home. In preparation, I've been refreshing my memory of old-fashioned frugal play ideas.

I like play activities that can be set up in minutes using materials and ingredients I already have at home.

Children don't need expensive over-packaged boxes of plastic to craft.

Nor do they need a selection of board games (or computer games) to play games.

Some wool, paper, scissors, a packet of cards and couple of everyday pantry ingredients can provide all they need for endless play.

Here's a few of my favourite old-fashioned frugal play ideas.

1. Playdough

Playdough play 1 little eco footprints

I love how playdough play has evolved as Little Eco gets older. I don't think you never get too old for playdough.

Playdough play 3 little eco footprints

Playdough play 2 little eco footprints

I always have a stash of cream of tartar in my pantry so that I can quickly whip up a batch whenever needed (Here's my favourite recipe). 

2. Card games

There’s dozens of games for children that can be played with a standard 52-card deck.

Some of our favourite include memorygo fish, old maid, spoons, solitaire and 21.

3. Wool crafting

I keep an eye out for balls of wool at op shops and have a good stash ready for crafting.

Using nothing but wool and your fingers you can finger knit. I was delighted when finger knitting recently became a fad at Little Eco's school. Now that's my kind of fad. Creative and frugal.

Weaving god's eyes. Little eco footprints

Collect a couple of sticks and you can weave a god's eye. Simply tie two sticks into a cross. Wrap the wool over and around one arm of the cross, then over and around the next arm, and so on. Change colours by simply tying the new colour to the old. Continue until it's as big as you like and tie off the end.

Cut two matching doughnut-like discs from scrap cardboard and you can make a pom pom. Place the discs together. Wind small balls of wool around the discs from the centre to the outer edge. Keep going until the disc surface is thickly covered in wool. Cut the wool in between the cardboard, at the outer edge of the disc all the way around. Tie off the pom pom by pulling a piece of wool between the two cardboard discs and tying a tight knot. Slide off the two discs and you have your pom pom.

4. Paper play

Grab a pile of paper and a pair of scissors and the crafting options are almost endless.

Good old fashioned frugal play ideas. Paper play, Little eco footprints

Cut paper snowflakes.

Make and fly paper aeroplanes.

Or cut and decorate paper doll chains.

I could go on. Build a cubby house. Go on a backyard picnic. Jump rope. Press flowers. Play handball or hopscotch. 

Our grandparents managed to play and craft without spending a fortune. 

Weed tea – a free natural fermented fertiliser

How to make weed tea fertiliser. Little eco footprints

A few weeks ago I wrote about making herbal tea from foraged weeds. I'm making weed tea again - but I won't be drinking this batch. This brew is for the garden.

In a couple of weeks' time I'll have bucketfuls of stinky liquid fertiliser, rich in minerals and microbes, ready to boost the productivity and resilience of my garden.

Turning weeds into nutrient-rich liquid fertiliser is a great way to use a resource that may have otherwise gone to waste.

Basically, weed tea is made by fermenting weeds in a bucket of water.

The fermentation process creates a liquid fertiliser rich in soluble nutrients and a diversity of beneficial microbes.

The result is not only a boost in productivity but also increased resistance to disease and insects.

What weeds can be used?

A bucket of nettle about to be made into a bucket of weed tea - a free liquid fertiliser. Little eco footprints

I'm making my current brew using Stinging Nettle and Fireweed, which are abundant in my neighbourhood at the moment. But any weed will do. Other weeds I've heard of being used include Clover, Chickweed, Lantana and Scotch Broom.

Fleshy, deep-rooted weeds like Dandelion and Dock are especially good because their roots mine valuable nutrients from deep in the ground.

Weed tea is also a great way to use grass clippings or weeds that you prefer not to compost for fear of spreading weed seeds. For example, I've been tossing Fireweed into a large sealed bucket. A best practice management guide for the control of fireweed suggests it should be placed in a sealed bag and burnt or buried. By first making weed tea, I'm extracting all the nutrients before disposal.

I'm being cautious - and only use edible weeds (e.g. Nettle, Clover, Chickweed, Dandelion and Dock) on edible plants. I use tea from toxic plants (e.g. Fireweed & Lantana) on ornamental plants. 

How to make weed tea

Stinging nettle and fireweed about to be made into weed tea fertiliser. Little eco footprints
The first step in making weed tea is to fill a bucket with weeds. A plastic bucket with a lid is ideal.

Pack the weeds down as tight as possible.

Continue filling and packing until your bucket is around two-thirds full of tightly packed weeds.

Using sauerkraut to innoculate weed tea with beneficial microbes. Little eco footprints

Using sauerkraut to innoculate weed tea with beneficial microbes 2. Little eco footprints

Your tea will naturally be colonised by beneficial microbes but you can speed up the process by inoculating it with preservative-free fermented foods such as sourdough starter, sauerkraut, kefir, yoghurt or organic beer or wine.

I added a generous spoon of home-made sauerkraut.

Fill your bucket of weeds with water. If using chlorinated town water, first leave a bucket of water in the sunlight for at least a day so that any chlorine can evaporate.

How to make stinging nettle liquid fertiliser. Little eco footprints

Hold weeds under the water surface using a brick or large rock, then place a loose lid or cover on the bucket.

Make sure it’s not air-tight as the fermentation process releases carbon dioxide – and I'm sure nobody wants an exploding bucket of smelly liquid fertiliser.

Leave your bucket of tea somewhere warm to ferment for a week or two.

Fermenting in a bucket. How to make weed tea liquid fertiliser. Little eco footprints

Weed tea full of Bubbling beneficial microbes. little eco footoprints

Happy bubbling fermenting weed tea. 

How to use weed tea

Before using, you can strain your weed tea through a piece of cloth or a pair of stockings. Straining ensures you don't disperse weed seeds or clog the nozzle of your watering can.

Or, if you aren't concerned about spreading weed seeds or aren't using a nozzle on your watering can, you can simply bucket out the fermented liquid as you need it. 

**CAUTION** Try not to spill any weed tea on your hands or clothing. Especially if you are about to run out the door for school pick up. Trust me - it smells REALLY horrible. And the smell lingers - even after repeatedly washing hands with soap and water. 

Dilute your strained tea until it is the colour of a weak black or herbal tea.

Dilution rate will vary between batches and will be influenced by the type and quantity of weeds used. Around 1:10 should be a good start. 

Over-diluting is far better than not diluting enough, as strong fertiliser can burn young roots or shoots.

Your diluted weed tea can then be poured over the root zone of growing plants.

Don’t apply to vegetables about to be harvested as I'm sure (based on its smell) it doesn't taste good.

Diluted again to half-strength, it also makes a great fertiliser for indoor plants and seedlings.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 14th September 2015.

Why I'm spending an hour in the garden each day

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 1

I've challenged myself to spend an hour in the garden each day for the whole of spring.

It may seem counterintuitive to add garden time to a schedule that I'm trying to simplify. But I know the benefits will outweigh any inconvenience.

Here's 8 good reasons to spend time in the garden each day:

1. Better than popping a daily probiotic pill

Digging in the earth is an incredibly efficient way to pick up beneficial microbes.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 2

Put your hands in soil (or feet for that matter) and you'll likely pick up far more beneficial bugs than you would if you took an expensive probiotic pill.

These microbes can improve our mood, fight inflammation, boost immunity, and help us absorb nutrients and digest our food.

2. Exercise

Our bodies are not meant to be sedentary. They are designed for moving. Yet many of us spend most of our time sitting.

Getting out in the garden each day is a great way to get regular exercise.

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There's digging, walking, stretching, squatting and lifting.

Regular exercise helps prevent heart disease, obesity, high blood pressure, adult-onset diabetes and osteoporosis.

3. Meaningful movement

Gardening appeals to me far more than spending an hour on a treadmill or in a gym class.

It's meaningful movement.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. Littleecofootprints 4

When gardening I'm actually achieving something. I can see the results immediately. I get a sense of achievement far greater than if I'd spent an hour walking nowhere. A weeded patch or a basket of greens is far more rewarding than a kilometre tally on a screen.

I believe the absence of meaningful physical work is one of the causes of consumerism. Not having meaningful physical work to do each day leaves a gap in our lives that we attempt to fill by consuming.

Garden, forage and DIY and the desire to buy stuff drifts away.

4. Nutrition

The more fruit and vegetables we grow, the more fruit and vegetables we're likely to eat.

If I go to the effort of growing something – I'm going to eat it.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 5

If I have an abundance of kale - I’ll eat it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

5. Relaxation and stress-relief

Gardening is a very effective way to calm the mind, relax and relieve stress.

It can actually put the mind in a similar state to meditation.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 6

All your senses awaken and you become more aware of the present moment. You naturally stop thinking about complications or stresses beyond the garden and instead focus on what you can see, feel, hear, smell and even taste.

6. Brain health

Daily gardening may even decrease the risk of dementia.

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When gardening you need to think, learn and be creative. This type of regular brain activity keeps the mind active and may protect it against degenerative diseases.

7. Grounding

Digging in dirt connects us to the earth – literally.

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You may have heard of earthing. The idea behind it is that that many of us rarely touch the earth with our bare skin. This leads to a build up of positive electrons in our body due to exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs). The power to our home, our appliances, lighting, wifi and our mobile phones can all emit EMFs.

Gardeners, by touching the earth are “grounding” themselves and removing this extra charge.

8. A longer life

All these benefits can add up to increased longevity. Gardeners, on average, live longer than non-gardeners.

Anhourinthegardeneachday. little eco footprints 9

Taking that into account, I think I can easily set aside an hour each day to spend in the garden for a couple of months.

Would you like to join me? 

I'm sharing my daily #anhourinthegardeneachday pictures over on instagram. The images above are a selection of the images I've shared during the challenge so far. I'm including gardening tips along the way. 

There's already a few of us playing along and I'm enjoying the peek into other Spring gardens.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 7th September 2015.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 1. Little eco footprints

I appreciate the importance of not over-scheduling my daughter’s time. For extracurricular activities we've always had the rule of "swimming plus one". But we've been cheating. I gave in to my desire to give her as many opportunities as possible. We squeezed swimming and gymnastics into one afternoon – and briefly ignored the fact that her schedule included three structured activities.

But then my daughter reminded me that what she wants most is "more time to just play".

Time to play is what our children need most.

Unstructured play is how they learn to imagine, create, communicate, and resolve problems. It’s how they learn to live a meaningful life.

Two recent moments of free play reminded me how valuable time to simply play is.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 6. Little eco footprints

I made a batch of play-dough. At eight I thought Little Eco might be too old for play-dough. But I was wrong.

She and a friend grabbed some animal figures and built a paddock, horse jumps, stables and a farm house. They spent hours in their imaginary world absorbed in meaningful creative play.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 2. Little eco footprints

On another day they built a cubby with sticks and decorated it with bunting.

They proudly told me "we made it all by ourselves" and asked to build a campfire.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 3. Little eco footprints

I appreciate the importance of safe childhood risk-taking as much as free play – so agreed. One of my favourite quotes is from outdoor play advocate Richard Louv:

"Small risks taken early (and the natural world is good place to take those risks) can prepare children to avoid more onerous risks later in life."

I wandered back to their cubby with matches, a picnic hamper, pan and a batch of pancake batter.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 4. Little eco footprints

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 7. Little eco footprints

They proudly cooked their own pancakes and afterwards set about adding more rooms to their cubby.

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 8. Little eco footprints

Little Eco spotted a tree in one of her pancakes. Can you see it? 

Simplify the schedule and leave time to simply play 9. Little eco footprints

She had to photograph it of course. Definitely her mothers daughter.

Free time, some sticks and an opportunity to create their own world evolved into a magical moment I'm guessing they will remember for a very long time.

A similar childhood play session is one of my favourite memories. The moment was so insignificant that my mum can’t even remember it.

It was school holidays and my mum was busy – so she gave me a block of clay to keep me occupied. I can clearly remember the joy I felt in having hours to sit and lose myself in creating with my own hands. It’s moments like this that matter.

I had pottery lessons later in my childhood. But that moment instilled in me a love for creating with clay – far more than the structured lessons did.

Childhood is not a race or a competition.

Our children don’t need to be drowning in extracurricular activities to become talented and capable.

What they need is plenty of empty moments.

They need time to be bored.

It’s the moments of boredom that force them to learn how to entertain themselves.

We each have a lifetime to discover and nurture interests. We don’t need to do everything we desire immediately.

I'm yet to act on my desire to create with clay. I will one day. But there’s no rush.

Similarly, Little Eco is dropping gymnastics for now. Perhaps she’ll drop guitar lessons one day to take up gymnastics again. Or she may move onto something completely different.

Our children don’t need to excel at everything right now.

There’s no sense in rushing their one and only precious childhood.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 31st August 2015.

Growing heirloom non hybrid corn. The Greenpatch Organic Seeds Corn/Maize project.

My first sweetcorn seeds for the season have gone into the ground. I've sown two varieties so far and will be planting at least another three. I didn't plan to grow so much corn, but I couldn't resist. A corn and maize conservation project run by Greenpatch Organic Seeds is now in its third year and Australian gardeners can start to reap its rewards.

Anasazi Sweet Corn. An amazing ancient multi coloured sweet corn grown by Greenpatch as part of their Corn Maize conservation project. Karl Bayer

Anasazi Sweet Corn. An amazing ancient multi coloured sweet corn grown by Greenpatch as part of their Corn Maize conservation project. Photo: Karl Bayer

The Corn/Maize project aims to rescue non-hybrid heritage varieties of corn and maize before they are lost forever.

Greenpatch Organic Seeds, based on the mid-north coast of NSW, grow and multiply the seeds and make them available to gardeners and farmers.

They are selling nine varieties of heritage corn, maize and popcorn this season. Neville Donovan tells me they have another 10 varieties that will be grown and multiplied this summer.

So far I've sown Golden Bantam and Balinese. Next I’ll plant Hawaiian and the beautiful multi-coloured Anasazi. I might even do some more seed shopping and add blue and pink mini popping corn to the mix. Blue and pink corn that can be popped is too irresistible.

Being able to grow multiple varieties of corn at the same time is one of the advantages of non-hybrid varieties.

Neville tells me that "planting multiple non-hybrid heritage varieties at once will not affect the flavour or taste of the resulting crop".

In contrast, hybrid varieties of corn shouldn't be grown with other varieties because any cross pollination can ruin their flavour.

Most sweetcorn seed readily available to home gardeners is hybrid.

You’ll notice the F1 on the packet indicating its hybrid status.

Another advantage of non-hybrid varieties is that you can save seed to grow the following year.

Whereas F1 hybrids are sterile and don't produce viable seed.

Saving seed isn't a priority for me this year. Corn is wind pollinated and all my varieties will be cross pollinating with each other. Neville suggests saving seeds from a mixed planting "is a hit and miss as to what it will produce the following season, but that could be an interesting outcome too".

I’ll save seed next year once I know which varieties I prefer.

Staggering planting can reduce cross-pollination between multiple varieties

Greenpatch grows up to four varieties on its property each season by staggering plantings to reduce cross-pollination.

"As a general rule we work on five weeks between any two varieties of plantings. It is critical to make sure plants are fertilised and watered well to prevent bolting and possible cross pollination. Pop corns normally take less time to tassel (flower) so it is best to plant them as your first crop," suggests Neville.

Two varieties Greenpatch are particularly proud to be saving are Manning White Maize and Anasazi sweetcorn. "They are both worlds apart," says Neville.

Manning White was bred in the Manning Valley near Taree in the 1930s for the dairy farmers to grow as animal feed. It can be eaten fresh when young.

Anasazi was bred on the other side of the world more than 2000 years ago by the ancient American Indians.

"We’re still searching for seed from Hickory King and Manning Pride – both once grown widely in the Hunter and North Coast regions. We still hold hope that somebody may have some of these seeds," says Neville.

Greenpatch is seeking growers to help with the project. If you are interested – and have some space, gardening experience and a reliable water source (or a secret stash of Hickory King or Manning Pride) – I'm sure Greenpatch would be happy to hear from you.

Originally published in the Newcastle Herald Monday 24th August 2015.